A defiantly askew look at the traditional cowboy picture
Man of the West, Anthony Mann’s darkly operatic 1958 oater sees the iconic Gary Cooper playing Link, a former outlaw trying to carve a new life for himself. As always, though, fate intervenes, and when a train robbery strands his charity mission to hire a schoolteacher out in the middle of nowhere, his path ultimately crosses with that of the gang he once rode with and the villainous uncle he abandoned long ago. Unavoidably he must take up arms once again and commit to one last job if he wants to stay alive and protect the woman he was ditched with, Julie London’s sensuous Billie.
With Westerns ten-a-cent during the fifties, Mann deliberately crafts a deeply psychological re-rendering of the clichés and conventions of the genre. Whilst it would be a mistake to label it as being revisionist, Man of the West takes a defiantly askew look at the traditional cowboy picture and, using one of its most indelible actors, carves out an altogether tougher, more sombre and haunting reflection of earnest, moral gunslinging.
Although I have a few problems with the comedy support of Arthur O’Connell as a confidence trickster whose scam goes wrong and leaves him stuck with Cooper’s taciturn saviour, and with Cooper’s own early attempts at being a fish-out-of-water in the bustling town, these sore-thumb elements can easily be overlooked once we get into the territory of dark and nefarious confrontation, and gothic psychosis. Dialogue-heavy and redolent with sneering malevolence, the exchanges between Link and Cobb’s Dock Tobin are devastatingly sly and only thinly veiled with skin-crawling threat. Cooper is clearly a decade older than Cobb, even with the latter in aged makeup, but this never intrudes on their calloused sparring and this disenfranchised relationship is as taut as a bullwhip.
Likewise, if watching a stalwart old-timer like Cooper going mano-et-mano against the virile and aggressive likes of Jack Lord’s volatile psychotic also absconds with the more formulaic approach of such moralistic horse-operas, its ill-fitting choreography only supports the age-difference between the two. Indeed, the term “opera” is ideally suited to this profound mood-piece. It is, strictly speaking, designed to be larger-than-life in terms of arch characterisation. Cobb, for sure, is playing his animalistic patriarch as though he is some Shakespearean fallen angel, and this may prove too much for some. Indeed, he skirts perilously close to becoming ludicrously piratical at times, owning every scene he is in, but still manages to invest enough nefarious charisma to keep us alongside his crooked last crusade. Plus, with Cooper reining things in, we need his polar opposite to stir venom into this powerful broth.
Quite honestly, Cobb’s interpretation could very easily be argued as being a major influence upon Sergio Leone’s uber-villain, Jean-Marie Volante, in both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. Only during the climax does this characterisation seem to spiral out of control with Dock doing the unthinkable, and I can’t help feeling that Mann’s mostly extraordinary tale would have been better suited to a more ambiguous conclusion. The narrative was always going to thrust these two against each other, but this wasn’t the appropriate catalyst, I fear. Dock is a monster, all right. But his last act is actually out of character.
Even with its classic status bolstering it, Man of the West is a strange film. Yes, we have the typical two-fisted brawl, the final gunfight, the great landscape and the grey blur of the moral divide that are the hallmarks of the Western, but Mann’s take is much more deliberate, soul-searching and cruel. Relationships are anything but conventional and allegiances only built under duress and mostly as a form of defence.Link’s attachment to Billie is an odd but compelling one.
There is tenderness and devotion there, but we also know of Link’s own marital status back home and, if anything, this is where the staunch and indomitable character of Gary Cooper is at its most reinforced and unlikely. His bond with Billie is daring to say the least, but somewhat conservative at the same time. And being a tad more critical, it is difficult to believe that Link could ever have been a member of this gang in the first place. Dock continually refers to their past of shared infamy, but no matter how steely-eyed and cold we see Cooper act it is nigh-on-impossible to conceive of him as having ever been an evildoer. He is just too damn righteous.
Thus even with a highly lauded appeal and critical appreciation, the film does have more than a few flaws. It is undeniably far from Mann’s best and certainly suffers from some ill-matched elements, meaning that tonal changes are possibly more uncomfortable than was intended. But that vaguely unsatisfied feeling you get as the end credits roll can be rectified by simply watching the film again. Understanding what is isn’t aiming for is crucial, and allows you to savour the moody eloquence and theatricality of the doomed power-play all the more.
Errant knockabout comedy notwithstanding, Mann’s film is unsettlingly brilliant.
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